Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its long-awaited Biological Opinion addressing the effects of the North Pacific federally-managed groundfish fisheries on endangered Steller sea lions in Alaska. Agency scientists have been working on this Biological Opinion for over a year.
The agency has promised that this Biological Opinion will be a comprehensive assessment of the combined and cumulative effects of federally-managed groundfish fisheries on listed species in the North Pacific, including the western Alaska population of Steller sea lions.
The agency scientists concluded in the Biological Opinion that fishing activity under the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska Fishery Management Plans is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered western population of Steller sea lions and adversely modify their designated critical habitat. The Biological Opinion concludes that changes to pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod federal groundfish fisheries are required to protect endangered Steller sea lions. The Biological Opinion does not change any other groundfish fishery, or any state fishery. For the federal pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries, the Biological Opinion leaves open for regulated fishing approximately one-third of the critical habitat of endangered Steller sea lions.
“Now that the Biological Opinion has been issued, we hope that Senator Stevens will stop his attempts to sabotage the science and the Endangered Species Act,” said Heather Weiner, Senior Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. This fall, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) attempted to waive all environmental laws for the country’s largest fishery by attaching a rider to the Labor-Health-Education funding bill. President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill over this and other controversial provisions. Congress is scheduled to resume its budget deliberations on December 5.
“While we have yet to review the Biological Opinion thoroughly, at least according to the agency’s description, it is the first time NMFS has attempted to examine the effects of a fishery in an ecosystem context,” said Earthjustice attorney Janis Searles. “This is a huge shift for an agency that has been accustomed to making decisions based on a single-species focus.”
“The oceans can no longer be treated as a strip mine,” said Ken Stump with Greenpeace. “It’s long past time for NMFS to recognize that the oceans are a complex ecosystem and reflect that fact in management decisions.”
“Treating the oceans as an ecosystem benefits both sea lions and fishing communities, and is the only way we will achieve truly sustainable fisheries,” added former commercial fisherman Phil Kline, now Fisheries Program Director for American Oceans Campaign (AOC).
The population of the endangered Steller sea lions in western Alaska is crashing. Counts have dropped by more than 80 percent in the past 40 years (from about 200,000 in 1960 to about 25,000 today). The decline continues today with an estimated average drop of over 5 percent each year during the 90s.
In April 1998, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit on behalf of Greenpeace, AOC and the Sierra Club. The suit sought to force NMFS to comply with the law, and take appropriate action to prevent the extinction of the Steller sea lion and to protect the North Pacific ecosystem.
The Endangered Species Act requires NMFS to examine the effects of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries on endangered Steller sea lions. NMFS’s previous attempts to meet this requirement failed miserably. In January 2000, a court determined that that “NMFS’s analysis is admittedly incomplete and its conclusions inconclusive.” Following this ruling, the court determined that NMFS “has not, and cannot, insure that continued fishing in designated critical habitat will not result in harm to endangered Steller sea lions.” Because of NMFS’s legal violation, in August 2000, the court excluded groundfish trawl fishing from designated critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions until NMFS complies with the law. The Biological Opinion released today is less protective of endangered Steller sea lion critical habitat than the court-ordered injunction.